BOSTON — Pitt lost its second consecutive one-point game, falling 31-30 in overtime to Boston College on Saturday in one of the most improbable ways to finish a season-crippling loss, as Alex Kessman’s extra point attempt sailed wide right of the mark after Pitt had scored to draw near to the Eagles in overtime.
As was the case in Pitt’s one-point loss to NC State the week before, there were plenty of plays where Pitt’s narrow margin of defeat could have been overcome, both in overtime and in regulation.
Kessman could have hit the extra point — or either of the other two kicks he missed in the game that were shorter than his 58-yarder at the end of regulation.
Pitt could have gotten a break on even just one of two fumble calls that did not go the Panthers’ way on reviews just before Boston College scores.
Marquis Williams could have held on to a gift-wrapped interception. Jason Pinnock could have kept his feet instead of stumbling behind Zay Flowers as the BC receiver raced 77 yards to a score. The officials could have let John Morgan’s unbelievably soft roughing the passer call in the second quarter slide.
Pitt could have had a better play call on 4th and 5 in the fourth quarter than a left-running bootleg with a quarterback with a balky ankle. Kenny Pickett could have picked out a few more wide-open receivers that were running free in Boston College’s defense. About four times, Pitt’s receiving corps could have helped extend a drive by holding onto the football.
Chances are, just one of those things going right for Pitt instead of going wrong would have been the difference between losing and winning. And it’s tempting to rightfully point that out that Pitt was the victim of some tough breaks that played large in a one-point final.
But the overarching theme is that if Pitt had the kind of team it wants to have, the kind of team that it appeared to have on paper entering the 2020 season, and the kind of team it thought it had when Pitt’s players and coaches were chirping about falling in the national rankings after a 3-0 start to the season, games against the NC States and Boston Colleges of the world shouldn’t routinely be so close that those plays become the difference between winning and losing.
Either Pitt doesn’t have the players that many thought it did, or the scheme has now repeatedly let those players down.
Pitt’s defense, even without Jaylen Twyman and Damarri Mathis and even missing Wendell Davis and Keyshon Camp and largely, Cam Bright, as they were on Saturday, has at least four players that figure to play football on Sundays, and maybe as many as a half dozen. The talent is there.
The scheme, which had been questionable throughout Pat Narduzzi’s tenure as Pitt’s head coach before finally coalescing into something resembling what he was able to accomplish at Michigan State, has collapsed once again.
Boston College does not have a prolific offense. They scored just 26 points against a flat-out terrible Duke team. They scored only 24 against Texas State and managed 22 in last week’s loss to North Carolina.
They scored 31 against Pitt NFL-bound group of defensive players, 24 of them in regulation, and frankly, it could have been more.
The Eagles offense is not complicated. They make a show of running the ball, but aren’t very good at it. They throw the ball a lot, but really only have two targets worth mentioning: wide receiver Flowers and tight end Hunter Long, who spent all night finding wide-open holes in Pitt’s secondary.
Flowers caught six passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns. Long had six more for 93 yards and several crucial first downs. Those are the only two meaningful weapons Boston College has. They move them around well. They attacked Pitt’s scheme well.
But at the end of the day, it’s two guys. This is not an offense with weapon after weapon that can beat a team any number of ways. The Eagles would probably beg other teams to give them the opportunity to get Flowers in one-on-one coverage and Pitt gave it to them all night long.
“I think it was just getting beaten physically and again, it comes down to your technique and fundamentals at the line,” Narduzzi said of the breakdowns against Flowers. “There was no coverage busts from my knowledge.”
For the second straight week, Pitt’s cornerbacks were the weak link in the defense, frequently allowing big plays against. But did the coverage scheme change? Nope.
Pitt was able to do some nice things in the pass rush and they largely stuffed the Eagles running game, but at the end of the day, that isn’t a team flush with offensive weapons on the other side of the ball. A team with two players that could possibly beat Pitt beat them over and over and over again.
Without a busted coverage — according to Narduzzi — Pitt allowed 358 passing yards and three touchdowns to a player making his fourth career start. That’s just not good enough.
That’s not to alleviate the offensive side of the ball from blame. In fact, anything but. As the Panthers scratched and clawed their way into the game in the fourth quarter and quarterback Kenny Pickett repeatedly putting his body on the line to move the chains, Pitt’s offensive play-calling was absolutely nonsensical.
The Panthers entered the game with the No. 3 statistical quarterback in the country in Pickett, who owned a 146 passer rating and averaged 8.7 yards per drop-back coming in.
Pitt’s rushing game, on the other hand, has been solidly mediocre. Top rusher Vincent Davis averaged 3.4 yards per carry and as a team, Pitt gained only 3.3 yards per rush.
Based on that four-game sample, it should have been abundantly clear that Pitt’s offense should be overwhelmingly leaning on Pickett and the passing game to move the chains.
Yet, when Pitt got the ball trailing by a field goal with 6:29 to play, the Panthers called three straight running plays before punting the ball back to Boston College.
Pitt’s offense as a whole rushed for 105 yards on 40 carries, a 2.6-yards-per carry average. Some of those were Pickett scrambles, as he ended up with 14 rushing attempts, but the fact that Pitt is averaging nearly four yards more when it passes than when it runs, and still is running over 45 percent of the time doesn’t make any sense.
Either they need to improve the running game, so that it becomes a viable way of moving the ball down the field, or they should abandon it.
All of that is to point out that the game should not have come down to needing Kessman to make a 58-yard field goal late in regulation, let alone the extra point to potentially send the game to a second overtime.
But once the game got there, Kessman certainly let his team down. Kessman is a senior with as much big-game experience as any kicker in the country, but his start to the 2020 season has been a near-disaster other than his record-breaking kick on Saturday.
He missed two more field goals on Saturday to drop his percentage on the season to 58.3%, which is 60th in the country. Simply put, that figure isn’t good enough for any kicker, let alone a senior and doesn’t even include his extra point miss.
Left-footed freshman Ben Sauls probably does not have the leg to hit the 58-yarder that Kessman did, so that makes the easier solution to figure out what is wrong with Kessman, and it sounds like that will be Narduzzi’s tact, as least for now.
“It’s a tough way to finish it up like that,” Narduzzi said. “And again, Kess got us to overtime. It’s disappointing, but that stuff that happens and he got us there.”
I’m not sure I’ve seen a team react to a regular-season loss the way the Panthers did.
Losing this game and falling to 3-2 with Clemson, Miami and Notre Dame left on their schedule was absolutely devastating to Pitt’s chances of having any type of a successful season, and the players seem to know it.
Paris Ford, always one to wear his heart on his sleeve, stayed crouched near the ground with his helmet off for what seemed like eons after Kessman’s kick sailed wide right.
The Panthers were gutted, but it didn’t seem that they had let the emotions of their previous one-point loss to NC State creep into their play. In fact, several things that stood out in that loss were cleaned up. Pitt had fewer penalty yards, especially on defense
The challenge moving forward will be a bigger one. One gut-punch, one-point loss did not kill Pitt’s season. This one did. Keeping this team together and focused on team goals could become difficult.
“It hurts,” Jimmy Morrissey said. “It hurts a lot. Every time you lose, and especially this one on the road. I’m really proud of a lot of guys in that locker room. … You can’t let this loss beat you next week,”